Abled Arrogance, Not Hearing Fragility

Key terms: abled arrogance, benevolence porn, pet vs. threat, and know your place aggression

Transcript of video: the English follows the ASL.

Hello, I want to talk about KJ’s vlog on the interpreting profession. There are a few things from his video I want to elaborate on and offer some perspectives. This is for a broad audience but my focus is hearing interpreters and those who are interpreting educators and researchers. I want deaf people to realize the power we have and to stop accepting this behavior from the interpreting profession.

This behavior is what KJ called hearing fragility. This term has been used quite a bit over the years- on social media, in blogs and vlogs, etcetera. The term has been a useful stand in for helping us articulate what we experience. However, my collaborators, Jonathan Henner and Naomi Sheneman, and I have been working on an overdue article that argues the logic that drives this behavior is not the same logic as what drives white fragility. The logics surrounding disability and whiteness are different. The ways that interpreters react when confronted about privilege, power, or harm is not fragility. It is arrogance. It is arrogance because our society has done very well in teaching us that disabled people do not have power, do not have agency, and are inherently lesser beings with needs that are special (thus burdensome). And in being lesser beings, anyone who works with us- as educators, as interpreters, etc, are inherently good people. Heroic, even. Interpreters and deaf educators are taught, deliberately, that they are very special and should be celebrated for taking on this “special labor” of benevolence.

Those adulations lead to what I call benevolence porn. Yet another article that I’m working on and hope to submit by the end of the summer. Benevolence porn is different from inspiration porn because they focus on the abled person. The abled person is celebrated and deified for making access happen. And the focus is on the goodness of a person rather than addressing social barriers or ableism, while ignoring deaf people’s agency as well as whether or not their access needs were actually met. And often this “helping” is really oppression.

I’ll repeat. Abled arrogance is intentionally taught. It is intentionally taught to new interpreters and teachers of the deaf who are taught that academic expertise outweighs lived experience and knowledges, that a college degree or credentials should erase the deaf person’s own expressed needs or knowledge about language and access. That degree gives you abled authority- on top of already existing abled authority inherent in society’s perceptions of the capacity of abled people versus the disabled people in the room. You exit with the idea that your language is inherently better (because it’s academic), your language is better because you learned it via a textbook and a classroom. That’s arrogance. You’re taught to intentionally assess a deaf person’s language, their capacities, that you know the best in that room about access and accommodations, including where people should sit, if you should do open or closed processes, etc. So that is not fragility. It is not about you living in a society where you’ve been sheltered from conversations about race (AKA whiteness in American society). This is about you being put on a pedestal for being “nice” or “good” to disabled people whose belonging is questionable and then being uncomfortable when told you shouldn’t be on said pedestal. This is arrogance, pure and simple.

This arrogance is fueled by benevolence porn. That’s why I’m uncomfortable with interpreters who advertise the work they do- sometimes it’s ego seeking so that one can be told they’re amazing for “helping”. That is why I have such an expansive view of confidentiality and that’s a topic for another blog.

Circling back to abled arrogance. In the context of deaf education and interpreting, deaf people are welcome as long as we are willing to play the part of tokens or as Kecia put it: “pets”. You like it when we are submissive. You like it when we are clearly not as smart as you are (playing into the disability tropes of intelligence and capacity), you like it when we don’t have as many degrees or credentials, you like it when we have language that is perceived as lesser than yours- for example, English that might be characterized as less academic. You like us better when we remain weakened by ableism. I’ve seen this pattern, it’s so pervasive, that it isn’t one place or one institution. The more deaf people have higher education, the more involved we want to be in research and teaching, the more pushback we get. You put us “in our place.” By telling us that we aren’t ready. That deaf can never teach interpreting. That technological workarounds for working with spoken language isn’t good enough. That there’s a stronger candidate for the interpreter educator position (who really is hearing). This is what you need to work on. The idea of “pet vs. threat.” You like us to be clearly subordinate to you. I have seen enough of this (including stories like KJ’s) to know this is my truth.

Another thing you need to work on is “know your place aggression.” When hearing people see us deaf people making forward progress- getting involved in research, teaching, critique, and most important- when we refuse to act as your subordinates or as lesser people- what happens? Retaliation. More barriers, not fewer. You put us in our place by telling us that ASL teaching is the only place for us within interpreter education programs. And in that separation, ASL is the lesser of the two branches of interpreter education. The “real” scholars go into interpreting and those who teach ASL are good only for what our hands offer- not our experiences, knowledges, definitely not our critiques.

For interpreter educators and researchers, I’m not going to name names, but I know who you are. And I’m telling you, point blank, that you have a lot of work to do. If you feel threatened by a deaf person, the problem is you, not us. Any time there’s a critique of a deaf person’s capacity, the problem is with the hearing person, not the deaf person. If we see abled arrogance happening with claims of hurt feelings, hard work, claims of being a good person and questioning that, etc, those attitudes and language are driven by your abled arrogance. It is not fragility. It is arrogance.

You abled people really don’t like it when disabled people say thanks but no thanks. We’re cool. Deaf people managed to survive all those years without professional interpreters. And believe me, we’re working on envisioning a future where we don’t need you anymore. Interpreting exists for us and if it doesn’t work for us, guess what? We’ll abandon this and figure out something else. And we’re doing this because we can see that the field has no interest in working on those issues.

POST SCRIPT addition to the video:

The idea of a deaf pet has circulated in our discourses for a very long time. The concept of pet vs. threat has been wonderfully articulated by black hearing scholar, Kecia M. Thomas. Read more here.

Know your place aggression was defined by Koritha Mitchell who has extended this definition to any marginalized group of people who might disrupt traditional ideas of power and privilege.